Is Empathy the Biggest Asset for a Product Manager?

Jitender Narwal  |  October 19, 2021 12:57 pm

As a society we are ever inching towards more homogeneous circles – increasingly, we are surrounded by people who are from similar backgrounds, have similar incomes, have similar education and so on. This means that it’s become more necessary than ever for us to be more empathetic. Especially for a product manager who is trying to solve problems faced by a consumer persona that might belong to another completely different homogeneous circle. And that’s why understanding and developing Empathy might be the best solution to these problems.

In Design Thinking, empathy is a “deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for”. Simply put we try to feel what the other person might be feeling. Too many times, lack of empathy combined with our own biases obstruct making the right decisions in the right order, something very important for product managers. That might be the key reason why Empathizing is the first step in the design thinking process.

To give an example, it might seem an easy choice for a product manager to ask the engineering team to ship a particular feature within the deadline, but the engineering team might have been bogged down with some unpredicted bugs and just pushing for results might lead to a poor product with low customer satisfaction.

As product managers, it’s easy to get tempted to focus on results but that might prove to be a dangerous path. On the other hand building, good relationships have been found to be a more sustainable approach yielding better results in the long term. This is possible through empathy.

Many people mistakenly believe that empathy—like other emotional intelligence competencies—is something you’re born with or not. However, it can be developed with practice. It might take time and energy to develop empathy but it’s worth the effort. We need to accept the importance of it and the possible damage due to lack of it.

Many product managers swear by the effectiveness of Empathy Maps. I personally believe in customized empathy maps based on the industry where you are working.
Even beyond that, try customizing it for your personal life and you should see the immediate impact.

Here are the steps that experts recommend to begin with:

1. Observe, listen, and ask questions – We prefer speaking over listening and observing because we feel that puts us in control but close to 90% of what we speak is centred around ourselves. So, we miss a lot of perspectives of the other person.

Carefully observing, listening attentively and asking questions indicates the genuine interest in what the other person is saying and it can open doors to insights that would not be possible otherwise at all.

  1. Avoid distractions and try to be more fully present when you are with people – Most of us have been guilty of being in mindless conversations while texting and realizing later we don’t remember anything at all or very little from these conversations. But if we pay attention to people, the trust level increases significantly and they are more likely to open up with us.
  2. Stop multi-tasking - We want to accomplish multiple things in one go, turns out it's not effective and the output quality also takes a hit. A lot of research on this subject has shown that to develop empathy avoid any distractions and have a mindful approach to task management. It also makes you more productive.

Being more empathetic would help everyone, but it becomes more crucial for a Product Manager who has to deal with a large number of people on a daily basis. An empathetic Product manager is also more likely to have better relationships with all stakeholders and that more often than not translates into excellent products shipped.

To a more empathetic world!

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